Friday, August 27, 2010

Varnashrama : Initial View

In a recent blog entry India's casteism is allegedly exposed by a putative scholar. Now this is not the occasion to dissect the virtues and non-virtues of the said scholar, however great he may have been, nor should we mortgage our own freedom to investigate for ourselves in deference to supposedly higher intellects of amateur scholars, be it Mohandas, Jawahar, or Bhimrao. I am writing this post from the perspective of a person who believes that Sanatana Dharma has timeless values and that it is important to understand them and practice them. In that spirit, we make a few things very clear at the very outset.

1. The purpose here is to attempt to understand, rather evolve an understanding with respect to Sanatana Dharma in the context of the caste-system. When we say `evolve', we mean that by no means is this post meant to be a final word. If we are able to initiate a genuine and thoughtful discussion on this subject and can achieve some amount of basic clarity on this issue, a good beginning will have been made.

2. We do not think that caste-system is inherently bad, nor do we think that whatever has been or is being practiced in the name of caste-system is good, let alone have scriptural sanctions. However using the instances of such horrific practices to demean an idea itself would be intellectual dishonesty, as would be the evil act of justifying peculiar whims and fancies in the name of caste-system.

(As the discussion evolves, we may add more points here)

Even before we begin, we want to get a few technical terms right. We will use the word Varna, as opposed to Caste. Caste is often translated as Jati which has a different meaning from the word Varna. In the context of Sanatana Dharma, the terms jati and varna are NOT interchangeable. So we prefer to use the term varna. We would also recommend that similar choices be made in relation to other topics, for often the translated terms add to already existing misconceptions and misunderstandings.

So, we take it that in the context of Sanatana Dharma, the rights, freedoms, obligations and duties of an individual with respect to family, society, and so on, is outlined by the term Varnashrama Dharma. The term Dharma may have much wider scope, but its projections in the aforesaid context are Varnashrama Dharma.

Another point worth mentioning here is that even though the term Varna has been a controversial issue for long, Ashrama has never been! This is despite the fact that both are being mis-practised (in my opinion) for a long time! A so called brahmin who shooes away a sudra never chastises his father for not forsaking home to go to forest and pursue Vanaprastha! Strange has become this land of our nation! I wonder if we ever prusue anything other than meanminded self-interest and that too in a very slimy, dishonest and crooked manner.

There are many who will begin by quoting Manu Smriti or some similar text even before there is a canvas to paint the picture. I would like to state the canvas I have chosen for this article. Firstly I quote from various sources to outline the platform.

1. Shrutirvibhinnah .... (Mahabharata)

(Could someone provide the sanskrit original?)

The shrutis and the smrities are divided nor can the opinions of sages (munis) be taken as sacrosanct or authoritative (pramana); the substance and essence of Dharma (dharmasya tatvam) are very difficult to fathom and are almost inscrutable, therefore the path taken by the great men (mahajano) shows the way.

We have to understand this aspect of Sanatana Dharma very clearly before we jump to any conclusions. Sanatana Dharma has scriptures but is not bound by them. As some author has mentioned in the post on Truth Based Civilization, we have to understand the parallel between the term-pair 'science and scientists' and 'Sanatana Dharma and Mahajana'. What is science? Science is something that scientists do. Who are scientists? Those who do science. So there is an apparent circularity, and yet it makes perfect sense for us. Science is taught using text-books, but is not bound by any or collection of text-books. The whole structire stands upon commonly accepted standards of evidence, and verifiability. Similarly, Sanatana Dharma can be taught using books, but the structure does not depend upon books.

Currently both the Shruti and smriti are available as `books' but that may not transmit the essential meaning. Spiritual truths can be learnt by books only as much as swimming can be learnt by books! By a book we learn that the density of man is less than that of water (on an average) so swimming IS possible, thereafter one also has to get into water and practice. There are no arm-chair swimmers. But alas, there are arm-chair gurus! So the book, for example, might tell you that such and such things are possible, but one has to actualize the possible! So much so regarding the books! Thus even though we will be quoting from books, we must bear in mind that we use them more for expediting the actualization of the understanding, and not for jumping to conclusions.

However, books do serve a very important purpose. They give us enough material to intellectually chew on to evolve an understanding. One more remark will be in place here: Shruti is considered a higher pramana (authority) than smriti. So one has to keep this hierarchy very very clear: Understanding born out of one's own realization (has more authority that) the words of a living Mahajana (has more authority than) the recorded words of Mahajanas which are Shruti (has more authority than) Smriti. Since the cause of a profound understanding is difficult to fathom, the words are to be taken as revealations and words of Iswara and not a creation of a human-mind. We give another analogy here, Newton discovered the law of gravition, but what gave him the insight? Those who have belief in Iswara would consider it a grace/gift of Iswara. Another honest answer will be that 'we do not know' and that is fair too.

Why are all these things being said? Because Sanatana dharma is not like one-God-one-Book-His-messenger(s) type of system. It is at least as open as science is, and has unflinching regard for the pursuit of the True (without even assuming that some Truth exists!). For those who know the Truth, a belief in the Truth is not needed, and those who are ignorant of the Truth can only have a semblance of a belief! That is why the term used in Sanatana Dharma is Shraddha (means a willingness to explore the possibility) leading to Vishvas (Confidence after the successful realization/actualization). It is not "faith" based in the one-Book ideological sense.

2. Purush Sooktam speaks of Brahmana as the face (mukha) of Viraat Purusha and Sudra as the Feet (padah).

It is a mistake to identify face with the brain or mind! So first of all those who think Brahmanas are the brain or mind are all wrong, for the same sookta calls Moon (chandrama mansojaat) as the mind of Viraat. So let it be plain and simple that Brahmanas are just the face (as far as this sookta is concerned), and that's it, period! Further, it is hardly ever emphasized that what essentially this sookta hints at is the all-encompassing and all-embracing nature of Iswara. Even adharma is the back of Viraat Purusha! We are blessed that feminists have not jumped into the fray for discussion by saying that women have been forsaken! That's not the thing at all!

In my opinion, what this sookta tells us is the unity that the seemingly disperate members of a society have as their underlying background. If Brahmanas (whoever they may be) reflect the nature of the face of Brahman (the radience and so on), the Sudras make the motion possible! The viraat Purusha moves by the virtue of Sudras! What is the supposed quality of Sudra? Obedience. And just notice what we have in our country! Everyone being absolutely disobedient, claiming themselves to be the highest "caste"; thereby establishing that we are all more than 100% worse than Sudras. That is why, our country does not move at all, leave alone in the right direction! It is rotting owing to stagnation!

Ok. So what we make out is that the sookta speaks of the underlying unity and different functionalities of one whole; and does in no way imply overtly or covertly any meanings of superiority/inferiority.

3. Krishna in the Geeta says: Chaturvarnyam maya ...

I have made these four varnas depending upon gunas and karmas.

4. For every human there are four purusharthas (goals) viz., Kama, Artha, Dharma, Moksha.

Now is any of these four denied to any of the Varnas? The answer is No. It is claimed that In Rama-Rajya nobidy is unhappy, all have enough wealth, happiness and enjpyment. All follow their respective Dharma. This much for Kama, Artha, and Dharma. How about Moksha? Krishna, in his Geeta also says, everyone following the path of Bhakti, including women, vaishyas, and sudras too can attain liberation. One may argue that some inferiority of Women, Vaishyas, and Sudras is implicit in this verse. But immediately the question arises as to inferiority of what kind? An existential inferiority, or a disadvantage owing to occuoational encumbrances? If the inferiority is existential (i.e. they are infeior by their very existence!) then how can they attain liberation? This argument can go on and on, and it must definitely be settled. however, we will postpone that for a later discussion.

So we summarize these points as follows:

The Varnas are created by and are part of Iswara, and each has a right to fulfil the whole gamut ot its goals. Being part of one great whole, the varnas complement in terms of functionality and are not designed to be in any conflict with each other.

The apparent conflict in the descriptions and prescriptions by various texts are to be resolved in deeper understanding of the scriptures or the way shown by the mahajanas.

We pursue the caste-problem in the context of the above canvas now. In principle these scriptural injunctions of profoundly fundamental nature, are supposed to govern our life and behavior. But the story does not end there! Humans have weaknesses as well, and they want to rationalize and hide them too!

1. It is not uncommon to find the tendency to feel a sense of existential superiority in humans.

What is existential superiority? We have coined the term, and if you have a better term please do drop your suggestions. The term means, a superiority which is a given, which the person has merely beacuse he/she exists, and which can not be surmounted by those who are existentially inferior to him/her, bu any means at all.

So if I am existentially superior to you, then you may do anything, you may save a hundred thousand lives, you may win a Nobel prize, you may even get the Darshan (vision) of Krishna himself, and yet you remain inferior to me! And this tendency is not hard to come by! It is ubuquitous, much much more than you thin it is. I give a few typical examples:

a. Jews consider themselves to be the 'chosen people'. So nobody can convert into Judaism (the religion of the Jews). If you are not born a Jew, it's all over! You are a gentile or a pagan, and you can never change it. Please note that even under mis-interpreted Varna system, a Sudra can surely hope to be reborn as a Brahmana, if he/she so desires!

b. The belief in the members of Congress party that those in the Jawahar clan are inherently more suited to be the rulers of this country!

c. Black people thinking that they are inherently superior to others in athletics and sports. Note that this is never considered racism, but if Whites even suggest as a hypothesis that Blacks may genetically have inferior intelligence, it is termed rank racism!

d. Hitler considered Germans to be racially superior.

We are not saying that one should overlook trends in differences. But differences mean just differences, and not inherent or existential superiority or inferiority!

2. Often humans justify their weaknesses or wrongs using rationalizations. Typical examples are:

a. Using inconclusive or even cooked up evidence, for example, the Aryan Invasion Theory! The British used AIT to justify their conquest of India, firstly by saying that they were not the first (the Aryans were the first!). There are numerous stupid people in India even now who believe in the Aryan Invasion Theory.

b. Muslims all over the world rationalize the violence by Muslim-terrorists by claiming that there has been lot of injustice against Muslims. they overlook the fact that Muslim terrorism comes from Islam itself, for according to Islam, a non-muslim is unjust to Muslims and Islam by the very act of existing! So in their own words, non-Muslims must either convert to Islam or die!


Therefore, in my opinion, whatever understanding we evolve must be based on some sound principles, possibly like the ones oulined in this article, and not based on some ad-hocism!

By the way, intellectually Bhimrao Ambedkar was much much better than Mohandas was, even though the former belonged to putatively lower caste and the latter to a putatively higher one. Mr. Bhimrao had a much sounder understanding of Islam, and has written insightfully on the subject, completely unlike Mohandas who spent his life institutionalizing surrender-to-Muslims.

It is unfortunate that he (Mr. BRA) succumbed to human frailties, and let his bad personal experience get the better of him while forming his judgment about the caste-system.

Incidentally Swami Vivekananda has said many important things on this issue. Some of them are:

a. Caste should not go, but casteism should go.

b. Caste shuold not go, but privileges must go.

[Remark: We guess that he meant the sense of existential-superiority by the term privileges and casteism]

Further, we also need to figure out how Varna is to be assigned to an individual. Is it by birth, or acquired by performance, or some combination. Can Varna of a person change during his/her life time? There are many, what might be called, engineering issues to be answered before we have clearer understanding. But it will be better if we carefully avoid status-quoism as well as ad-hocism. Status-quoism leads to rotting, and ad-hocism to much worse!


  1. the moment you become apologetic about varnashrama dharma and caste, you had lost your case here..

    1. Could you quote the particular passage you have in mind? Thanks.


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